Warthen: Fuming with impatience

Editorial Page EditorJanuary 11, 2009 

OVER THE holidays, my wife and I went to see “Australia.” Since we don’t get out much, the $9 ticket price was a shock. My wife recovered first, and had the presence of mind to ask for the senior discount — the first time either of us had taken advantage of that. It was still high, but $6.50 apiece was less painful to a guy who wasn’t burning to watch Nicole Kidman for almost three hours anyway.

A couple of days later, playing golf with my dad and one of my daughters, I decided to play from the senior tees, just to keep us from having to tee off from three separate places on each hole. But whatever my excuse, the fact remains that, at 55, I am entitled now to that privilege.

My point here is that life is finite, and I’ve had numerous reminders of that lately. Consequently, I am less patient than I used to be. In terms of my role as editorial page editor, what this means is that I chafe more readily, and more loudly, at the failure and/or refusal of South Carolina’s political leaders to take even the simplest, most commonsense steps toward moving our state beyond being last where we’d like to be first, and first where we’d like to be last.

My colleagues on the editorial board are painfully aware of this. They will urge me to go along with praising some “reasonable” political compromise that moves roughly, barely perceptibly, in the right direction, and I will refuse. I will insist that we advocate what should happen, that we articulate clearly why it should happen, and why there is no rational, defensible reason why it should not happen. I insist upon this because all too often if we don’t say it, no one (no one with a pulpit as bully as ours, anyway) will. This can come across as inflexibility. But what it really is is impatience.

Some of these things that I get tired of advocating for in vain, year after year, are admittedly complicated, which is what makes it so easy for the forces of reaction to prevent progress. Comprehensive tax reform (see the above editorial) is one such issue. But sometimes the need for change is painfully simple and obvious. Take our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax.

Let’s review some basic facts:

• The state tax on a pack of cigarettes is 7 cents, and it has been since 1977.

• The average state tax nationally is more than a dollar.

• Study after study has demonstrated that the higher the cost of a pack of cigarettes, the fewer teenagers will take up the habit.

• Here in South Carolina, with our current tax, 6,300 kids under 18 take up smoking annually.

• Each year, 5,900 adults — almost all of whom started as teens — die as a result of smoking.

• The annual direct health care cost to South Carolina of smoking (not including the impact of secondhand smoke) is $1.09 billion.

• This adds $574 per household to our tax burden.

• Each dollar that South Carolina contributes to Medicaid is matched by three more federal dollars, quadrupling the effect.

We’ve heard all the excuses for inaction. They range from the ideological/quasi-religious (the inflexible opposition to any tax increase, no matter how good an idea it may be in a specific case) to the downright moronic. (“If you raise the tax, fewer people will smoke, and your revenues will go down.” Great. Fantastic. That’s just the kind of “problem” we want to have. Duh.)

You’ve heard all this before, right? So what set me off this time? A small thing.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell came to see our editorial board last week to talk about his priorities for the 2009 legislative session. I appreciate that he did this; I really do. I’ll even go so far as to say that Bobby Harrell is a better-than-average lawmaker by S.C. standards, and you can see why he rose to be speaker. He is even capable of being semi-visionary, as with his steadfast defense for years of the state’s endowed chairs program.

His list of priorities was respectable. And he predicted that this year, we will finally raise our cigarette tax — by 50 cents a pack, taking us to roughly half the national average. He wants to spend the money and the Medicaid match on making it easier for small businesses to provide health coverage.

A 50-cent hike would be progress, I told myself. And whatever it is spent on, it would save a lot of lives in South Carolina. Take what you can get. Be reasonable.

Two days later, I read a letter from Lisa A. LeGrand of Columbia, which said in part, “It seems downright immoral to me that the state has means of raising revenue that it simply will not utilize, such as... Raising the cigarette tax to the national average...”

And I had one of my impatience attacks. Yes, Lisa, you’re absolutely right. Your point about raising revenue aside, there is no moral, rational, wise, defensible reason not to raise the cigarette tax immediately to the national average. There is no valid excuse for going halfway.

The S.C. Tobacco Collaborative projects that a 93-cent increase would prevent 64,100 kids alive today from becoming smokers, help 33,800 adult smokers quit and save 29,400 adults and kids from premature death. In case you’re concerned about the politics, the group has a 2006 poll showing 71 percent of S.C. voters support a 93-cent increase.

But you know what? That’s not going to happen. The truth is that the best we’re likely to get is what Speaker Harrell and other sensible, pragmatic, realistic, incremental S.C. leaders are willing to make happen.

This makes me fume with impatience. It should do the same to you.

For more evidence of my growing impatience, please go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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